Boston Police posted to Facebook

For Boston Police, social media experience pays off after bombing

After two men set off bombs during the 2013 Boston Marathon, the city’s police department pulled out all the technology stops to help keep order and identify and capture the suspects. But one of the best performing tech tools wasn’t a high-end system available only to law enforcement officials.

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The Boston Police Department’s (BPD) use of universally available social media after the deadly event has been lauded as exemplary.

Within minutes of the bombing, Edward Davis, III, BPD commissioner for seven years before retiring last November, instructed the chief public information officer to start posting. The department’s go-to broadcast sites were Facebook and Twitter, but  officers also posted photos and videos on Instagram. The idea was to start providing accurate information about the number of dead (three) and injured (275) and helpful information such as road and facility closings.

“We had committed to being a very transparent organization,” Davis said. “I thought it was very important that we get valid and appropriate information to people.”

Davis controlled what flowed out of BPD by assigning the social media task to trustworthy employees, he said.

“I was surprised at how manageable it was because you’d think when you send something out to tens of thousands of people, you might get thousands of responses,” he said. “But instead of responding to individual responses, what we would do is pick out themes and address those themes.”

Davis said he also thought it was important to get information from the public.

“We recognized very early that Twitter and Facebook are really forums for discussion and not a one-way” conversation,” he said. What was particularly helpful, Davis said, was the ability to see how people were interpreting what BPD was saying.  Feedback from the community helped the department hone its message.

BPD’s Twitter handle @BostonPolice saw huge spikes in usage. For example, a tweet correcting misinformation on an arrest in the case was retweeted almost 11,000 times, and by the time suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured alive, the department’s Twitter account had more than 300,000 followers, up from 40,000 before the bombings, according to “Social Media and Police Leadership: Lessons from Boston,” a report released in March by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management and co-authored by Davis.

But for the most part, those increases didn’t cause disruptions in service or capabilities, he said.

“The only time we ran into a problem was when we asked the public for their help in turning over videos and photos to us after the marathon,” he said. “There was such an overwhelming response that the computers we set up for the FBI to capture that data were quickly overwhelmed, so there was a lot of information that was lost temporarily. Luckily, Facebook and Twitter did not go down, so we were able to go back and capture most, if not all, of that information.”

Despite the snag, Davis said law enforcement agencies shouldn’t rush to shore up their information technology systems. When a large-scale disaster strikes, BPD’s protocol is to partner with other agencies, such as the FBI, and take advantage of their technology.

“I don’t think it’s necessary that every police department in the country have the capacity to download terabytes of information in the midst of a crisis like that,” he said.

The department began using @BostonPolice in 2009, and it had used social media to disseminate information about other high-profile homicide cases. It’s also been running #TweetfromtheBeat to interact with citizens since 2011. BPD gravitates to Twitter and Facebook because of their user base, he said.

“Those are the ones we determined were the most popular among the citizens of the city of Boston,” Davis said.

“The Tweet from the Beat program uses the GroupTweet application and allows authorized members of the command staff to post directly from their personal Twitter accounts to the BPD official Twitter account by using the #TweetfromtheBeat hashtag,” the report states.

Other city police departments have been taking advantage of social media. In 2012, the Seattle Police Department launched Tweets-By-Beat to let users follow or view police dispatches in each of the city’s 51 police beats. Last month, the Gulf Shores, Ala., Police Department hosted a Tweet from the Beat event during which it shared texts and photos of what officers were doing between 6 p.m. and 2 a.m. April 16, creating a virtual ride along, according to Gulf Coast News Today.

And police use of social media is growing. Last fall, the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s survey of social media use found that 95.9 percent of agencies surveyed use social media, with Facebook topping the list of outlets at 92.1 percent, followed by Twitter at 64.8 percent. ICAP partnered with the Justice Department and others to launch the Center for Social Media in October 2010 to help law enforcement agencies use social media and integrate Web 2.0 tools into operations.

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